The Brexiteer-battling radio host on positive patriotism, the far right and what we should do next
If there’s one thing uniting the nation across the entire political spectrum, it’s a belief that Britain is in a bad state right now. Of course, their reasons for believing this seem to differ in often wildly conflicting ways. Likewise their solutions. The country is furiously divided as to what a ‘Great’ Britain could, or should, look like. So where does that leave us?
James O’Brien has opinions. He hears a lot of them too, from the callers of his LBC phone-in show, and from the politicians he interrogates on Newsnight. He’s just written a book entitled How To Be Right… In A World Gone Wrong, and so, over a frank and excoriating hour fuelled by a mug of what I think might have just been plain hot water, he kindly agreed to give us his answers to the burning questions of the day.
Shortlist: Hi James, is there anything about Britain that we can still be proud of?
James O’Brien: The NHS is probably the finest socialist institution on the planet. Aneurin Bevan’s crowning achievement remains something that is the envy of the world and something that we should probably be a little bit more mindful of protecting from precisely the political forces that have delivered Brexit.
Culturally Britain is still an amazing place to be. The plays, the actors, the artists, the musicals and the writers. We still have an astonishingly rich vein of creativity in this country.
And so where does it most need to improve?
The phrase I like the most is: the footballification right of everything. You know how in football, the more of a fan you are, the more blind you are to reality. So if your centre-back scythes down their centre-forward, and leaves him writhing on the floor with two broken legs: it’s a dive.
And you’re screaming it. You really, really mean it. You’re violently insisting on it. And every single person who’s vaguely neutral can see objectively, that was absolutely a foul. I think we’ve all got our scarves on now and we’re all screaming at the other lot, and I think we need to take them off.
I went to a museum in Farnham in Surrey yesterday. The Museum of Rural Life. And there was a little stuffed donkey and a story there about what happened. It was during WWI, and in between the French, German and British lines, a donkey was dying while giving birth to a foal, and in one of those moments where you’d think it was apocryphal if it hadn’t been properly recorded, both sides stopped firing, and a British soldier crawled out towards the donkey, rescued the foal and the gentleman started cheering. It just struck me as quite a nice allegory.
For a common humanity that transcends conflict?
Yes! But of course, you are persuaded by your leaders, by your ‘betters’, by your politicians, or by your demagogues, that these people are your sworn enemies, which I think is pretty much where we are now.
Do you think there can be a positive nationalism or patriotism?
Well, pride in one’s country is perfectly easy to enjoy and feel, but it is hard to know where that stops and changes it into the denigration of another population, or another country.
I only speak English, so most of the poets and playwrights and the authors that I revere were working in the English language, and that, I think, counts as patriotism. William Blake, Jerusalem, even the music that Hubert Perry wrote to accompany Blake’s poem, these make my heart swell a little bit.
But then again, I’m back to that story of the donkey because the pride I feel, it shouldn’t really be special.
I tell you what my answer would be: I’d say yes, of course, you can have patriotism. But only if you recognise that everybody else’s patriotism is equal to yours.
How do you think the perception of Britain, in the eyes of the British people, squares with how it’s perceived by the rest of the world?
I know that most of the European Union are looking at us with a sense of bewilderment and pity. I don’t know how much affection there is anymore. I think there used to be affection.
If you look at how the Irish media is reporting British Affairs and Brexit… I mean, Ireland out of all the 27 remaining EU member countries is going to suffer more, potentially, from Brexit than any of the others are. And they don’t understand. It’s not so much “why are you doing this to us?” But “why are you doing it to yourselves?”
It’s very sad to see British people’s self-image of Britain. It’s one of exceptionalism, there’s still a ‘Britannia rules the waves’ type mindset in place. And it doesn’t, I don’t think, bear any relationship with reality, let alone with how other countries perceive other us.
In your book, you describe how certain callers to your LBC Show will often use phrases and allusions, the idea of the “national identity being eroded” and “British values” being “lost”. What do they mean by these?
I think we all know what they’re referring to, but I suspect they don’t realise it themselves very often. They’re referring to an increase in the number of people who are of different coloured skin, or whose first language is not English, being somehow a problem or somehow a negative. What is frustrating, but also strangely illuminating, about talking to these people is how quickly you realise that.
So what you then have to do, is ask: how Shakespeare, or Dickens, or Kenneth Wolstenholme’s commentary at the end of the 1966 World Cup, or our flags, or our navy, or our armed forces - how are any of these things being in any way compromised, undermined or threatened by the fact that there are more Polish people living here now than they were 20 years ago? And that the answer is, of course, that: they aren’t. There’s no threat to your culture.
When you say “tell me more” there’s nothing there. I mean, it will always, always, always distill down to: there are too many foreigners.
What you really care about is some people whose background is different from yours, looking like they might be close to getting treated equally to you. And that’s certainly what’s driven Donald Trump into the White House.
How do you think we could work towards a more inclusive society within Britain? One less hostile to countries outside of Britain, and to their people?
We were doing alright, I think. This is what I think is this is so sad about what’s going on at the moment, is that what was called ‘political correctness’ you realise, in retrospect, was really a sort of robust insistence on good manners.
So there were words you weren’t allowed to employ, there were attitudes you weren’t allowed to publicly support, and and I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that the lid on some of the vilest toxins in the public discourse has now been removed.
What’s caused it to have been removed?
I think that it was impossible to conduct the Brexit debate without looking at almost everything through the lens of freedom of movement of people, which of course, got painted as a negative, despite the fact that everyone who voted to stop it loses their own freedom.
So when I take calls from someone, he says he voted for Brexit because there were too many brown faces behind the tills in his local Tesco, you realise - however much the so-called cerebral side of the Brexit lobby like to pretend that it’s not inextricable - you can’t separate that disgusting ‘Breaking Point’ poster from what has happened subsequently in this country, with regards to attacks going up and racism being reintroduced to the mainstream.
Is there any way back? To replace the ‘lid’?
It would involve returning to issues of equity and equality, or returning to the values of political correctness, or it would need a new name, of course. ‘Common decency’ would be good for me.
But of course, we’re still in an economic trough, and you need two things historically to make the demonisation of The Other politically powerful. You need economic problems, and you need some sort of refugee crisis so that people can be shown pictures that add to the rhetoric that they’re being ‘swamped’ and undermined and ‘overtaken’.
So when you have an economic crisis and the refugee crisis unfolding in tandem… That is about as fertile ground as it’s possible to get for a fascist.
So it necessitates addressing the economic situation?
You would need to start making sure you blame the right people, because if you’re right-wing and working class, you’ve spent your entire life essentially voting for the policies in the system that has now screwed you to the floor. So for you to turn around and start blaming the ‘right people’ is for you to turn around and start blaming yourself.
So you say: hang on a minute, I’m anti trade-union because Rupert Murdoch told me to be. I’m anti-higher tax rates for the rich because the Taxpayers Alliance told me to be. I’m anti-whatever it may be because x, y and z told me to be, but actually, it turns out I’ve been screwed by the owning class, as Marxists would have it.
The gap between the poorest-per-capita in this country and the richest is among the highest in the world. So the problem is that [the poorest] have been persuaded for decades that their problems are the fault of immigrants, or all single mothers, or feckless work-shy layabouts, or all of the classic Otherings that have worked so effectively in Britain, thanks to the ministrations of people like Paul Dacre at the Daily Mail, that it’s not up to me how you find a way back.
These people - and ‘working class Tory’ is a very lazy shorthand, but I think it works in this context - they need to learn to punch up. And they’ve had decades now, of being taught and rewarded for punching down.
How do you get people, whose lives haven’t tangibly improved for decades, despite having been ostensibly on ‘the winning side’ in terms of election results, to reconcile that? Is it possible to convince someone, in a way that wouldn’t make them defensive about positions they’ve adopted, that they’ve ‘harmed themselves’?
I think you do it by asking rather than telling.
What they’ve done is build a position out of straw that they think is bricks. So you have to find a way of getting them to examine the building materials themselves. And this is a lesson I’ve learned the hard way by getting it wrong for a while. If you keep shouting at them: “your house is made of straw! Your house is made of straw!” They won’t thank you for it. They’ll call you a liar: “fake news.” And then, of course, the house gets blown down. But what you need to try to do is make them realise that their house is made of straw before it gets blown down.
Have you noticed a change in the callers to your LBC radio show?
A huge amount. There’s an astonishing review on Amazon, actually, for the book, which just says: apart from my dad, you’ve made me think more and change my mind about more stuff than anyone else. But it’s unlikely to happen in the course of a phone call.
The only thing about the book that I’m a bit sad I didn’t foresee is, of course, it is going to be read by an awful lot of people who aren’t familiar with the radio show, as a whole.
The clips that have gone viral suffer from the same problem that course. They’re not that representative of the average caller.
It’s a three hour show…
Bingo. So The Sunday Times said yesterday that “his callers are usually furious.” My callers are not usually furious, but the furious ones generally come such a cropper that it’s turned into a spectator sport.
So the perception becomes that your show is a “come and have a go if you think you’re hard enough” gauntlet to the right-leaning general public?
Yeah, and good luck to [those callers.] But they need to be aware of what their opinion is made of. And if it is made of straw and they still think it’s made of brick, then it’s not going to go well for them. But the people listening who thought they believed what the callers believed are the ones who are going to be changing their minds.
So the person sitting at home going. “Yeah, it’s political correctness gone mad.” And then they hear someone else come on the radio and go: “Yes, political correctness has gone mad” and then they hear me say: what does ‘political correctness’ mean?
If they ask themselves that question, calmly and quietly, not in the crucible of the radio phone-in show, which is gladiatorial by definition, but quietly, then hopefully pennies will drop and lightbulbs will come on.
What do you think makes so many of the sort of people who call into your shows for gladiatorial purposes do it, given how routinely these sorts of callers come out worse? Do they think they’re going to change your mind?
I don’t think that they’re necessarily hoping to change my mind - maybe they are, I don’t know. I think because they’ve never thought for a minute that anti-trade-union might be wrong. So it doesn’t matter how many other people they’ve heard fail.
Also, we’re in a weird psychological place now, where someone comes on who believes exactly what they believe, and repeats exactly the phrases that they would employ, comes and has an absolute nightmare, and then they have to start claiming that it’s a fake call, or it was an actor, or that we deliberately select [lesser callers]. Which is an impossible position to sustain if you’ve got your eyes open and your ears clear.
But the alternative is to believe that you’re wrong. People will go to extraordinary lengths to avoid that conclusion.
Have you ever had your own mind or opinion changed by callers?
All the time. Even in the instant. I mean, on obesity, that was a slower process. I used to subscribe to the ‘eat less exercise more’ school of public health, agreeably dismissive of anyone who said it’s a deeper problem than that.
I was completely wrong about silly stuff like tattoos on teachers. A paediatric nurse who had passed top of her year rang me and said: “I’m covered in tattoos.” And I was saying I don’t want my children taught by people with tattoos. And she rang me up and said “well, I’m covered in tattoos, and I’m the best paediatric nurse in my year. If one of your children is taken ill and I’m on duty in intensive care, would you like me to hand over to a less tattooed colleague?” And I felt like a twat.
I’ve changed my mind on all sorts of issues. But only by asking questions. Not by people telling me I’m wrong, by people asking me to examine why I think I’m right. And that seems to me to be missing from a lot of public discourse.
What do you make of the discussion around figures like Tommy Robinson and various other far-right figures getting airtime on national television, be it in profiles or interviews or panel shows? Would you still host those kinds of figures?
No, not anymore. I think your [Steve] Bannons and your Anjem Choudarys and your [Stephen] Yaxley-Lennons - they’re not interested in illumination. And the people who’ve already swallowed the Kool-Aid are never going to have a penny drop moment. So the argument that you somehow diffuse these people by publicly dismantling their position doesn’t work, because there are people putting immense amounts of effort into seeing things that aren’t true.
I mean, the interview I did with Farage a few years ago was, I mean, an absolute disaster for him, on every single level. People were predicting that his career was over. He emerged as a completely spurious hypocrite, but I knew that it wasn’t going to make any lasting difference to anything, because I’ve been on the receiving end of the emails and the texts for years from people who need to believe that the reason why their life is rubbish is because people are talking Polish on their train.
I don’t believe in sticking professional providers of scapegoats on a panel show or a sofa where they are validated by the presence of their decent opponent. There’s nothing gained from those exchanges. It’s a ludicrous phrase, ‘no-platforming.’ You can go and spout this nonsense wherever and whenever you want, but you don’t get a season ticket for Question Time to do it, because that pollutes the well of public discourse, and that poisons everybody.
On the flip side, do you think there are voices and people who should be getting heard more?
Yeah, I mean, it depends what context you’re talking about, but I’m increasingly persuaded that - and it might sound a bit like a turkey voting for Christmas - we need fewer professional opinion providers, and more and more people who just speak from experience and evidence.
So I now try on the phone-in show to confine the conversation about police, to police officers. To confine the conversation about the NHS to doctors and nurses. To confine the conversation about the ports in Dover to hauliers who run businesses and know exactly what will happen. Talk about the Irish Border, talk to people who live in Ireland, who work in Ireland, who do business in Ireland. Don’t talk to Owen Paterson.
And it’s generalists as well. And I’m guilty. I know this, because I think I’m one of them. People who can argue a good game and know a little bit about everything - that class of people has kind of taken over. And because that class of people has kind of taken over, it means that people who are equally ignorant of finer detail, but wrong, get given the same amount of profile and attention. So you can tell a lie, plausibly, and you will be debating with someone who doesn’t really have a complete grasp of the situation, but is not deliberately lying.
Freedom of movement of people, right? It’s now two and a half years since the vote, and I still have to tell people that there are European Union countries with much more robust border controls than we have, and we would have been completely free to demand that anyone moving here had three months to provide evidence that they had found work or that they had the material wealth to support themselves. We could have done that. We elected not to. Successive governments chose not to do it for the very simple reason that it would have cost a lot more than it saved.
But, of course, as long as everybody else is blaming problems, political and personal, upon immigration, for a government to stand up and say “no, no immigration is not the problem, this is all our fault,” that was never going to happen.
Without mentioning any names, I did a private closed event at the BBC on this issue of balance and equivalence, about six months ago, so just under two years after the referendum. There were senior BBC journalists that still didn’t know about the EU Charter on movement of citizens. They still didn’t know.
So if you’re a tub-thumping racist demagogue marching into the Today programme studios for your monthly tummy tickle, you’re coming out with this stuff that’s demonstrably untrue. If the people interviewing you don’t know that it’s not true, what is the purpose of that entire process?
Is there the possibility of a corrective, in the media, to the figures you cite in your book as having the most corrosive influence? Paul Dacre, Kelvin MacKenzie, Tony Gallagher…
I don’t know because it’s so commercially viable.
The analogy I will use - I think to my dying day - is: it’s a lot easier to sell tickets for the ghost train than it is to sell tickets for the speak-your-weight machine. And you can see why. I’m selling you a fact that you might not like, this bloke over here is selling you half an hour of thrills and spills and the excitement and adrenaline and terror.
So I don’t know what the corrective is, except - and I never thought I’d say this - some form of more robust penalty in place for proper media organisations that transgress basic truth.
You tell a fib, it’s got to be admitted and apologised for in type the same size as the original fib. Whereas at the moment, you can stick a massive lie on the front page and, if they apologise at all, it will be tucked away on the bottom of page 37.
Politicians do it as well. What makes it even worse is that people like Jacob Rees-Mogg retweet the falsehood and then don’t recant when it’s shown to be false and bogus, so they end up inflating the lie. Whether he does it deliberately or not. I don’t know. He probably has a nanny to do his Twitter for him.
But that is the problem. So the newspapers might punt something that turns out not to be true. They might receive a very light slap on the wrist or a self-imposed apology. It’s where that story goes. That old line about: a lie is halfway around the world before the truth has got its trousers on.
How can you make people enthused about left politics?
I don’t know. I mean, you have to make it look like self-interest. I don’t think you’re going to ever change the course of political traffic at the moment by insisting that people care more about others, people who aren’t them. That seems to have been the problem with what you could loosely described as ‘left-wing’ politics in recent years.
It’d be very easy to look at a lot of left-ish concerns and obsessions and say ‘they’ don’t care about ‘you’. So you just need to find a way of pointing out that you do, but Brexit makes everything so difficult because the Remain position now has essentially become: we want to try and stop you hurting yourself. And quite how you pursue that position without being patronising and/or condescending I haven’t yet worked out.
But there is, as you mentioned, enthusiasm for the NHS, a socialist institution at heart. Can you see that sentiment changing?
It’s not that difficult, is it? This is why it’s so unsurprising to see some of the biggest cheerleaders for Brexit already suggesting that the American health providers should be able to come in and bid for elements of the NHS, because all I need to do is persuade you that your taxes are paying for Johnny Foreigner to have his operations, and that is why we need to change the system so that the only operations you pay for are the ones that you need. And we’ve lost it. It’s gone.
All this anti-tax rhetoric is gathering pace now because I think that part of the Brexit project is to undermine civilised society and make everything more atavistic and selfish. When they say we need lower taxes, you need to shout “You mean we need fewer nurses, fewer teachers, fewer doctors, fewer police officers, fewer firefighters, a smaller army…”
When you say “we need lower taxes,” what you really mean is we need lower standards of civilization accessible to people who aren’t rich. You want all of civilization’s greatest prizes to be reserved for the people who are the wealthiest.
What you really hate, as a wealthy plutocrat, is not getting to keep all of your money. You would not be able to earn if it wasn’t for the public structures in place - the roads and the services and the sectors - so, of course you should pay a much greater part of your income than you currently do, because you wouldn’t have any income at all if it wasn’t for society. So the way that they get keep all of their money, or more and more of their money is to undermine the basic requirements of a society.
Is there any cause for optimism and hope in the foreseeable future then?
Young people. But! Caitlin Moran wrote a brilliant article about a month and a half ago, about why people like me and her can’t lay this shit on our children.
We can’t keep saying, “ah yes, the young people give me hope.” You’ve got enough to deal with. You’re going to earn less than your parents. You’re less likely to own a home than your parents were. You’ve got less job security than your parents. You’ve got less protection in the workplace than your parents. You’ve got less security, generally. You’ve got a mental health crisis unfolding. You’ve got university education in all sorts of problems.
So for, you know, grizzly old gits like me to turn around and say “everything will be fine, the young people will fix everything” arguably puts even more pressure on shoulders that are already struggling under the weight of what they have to endure.
But I don’t see young people currently being susceptible to the scapegoating and the scaremongering. I don’t. I mean there will be plenty who are, but we don’t seem to have - in Britain, I’d be less confident in America - we don’t seem to have seen that conflation of the extreme right-wing with a victimhood narrative. So, you know the idea that men are somehow being persecuted by women. You might see some idiot pop up on the telly to argue that men’s rights are a crucial issue, but I don’t think most people under the age of 30 would do anything but snigger, and that’s good.
It’s all about detoxifying difference. And the young, I don’t again want to put too much pressure on them, or reach too quickly for the light at the end of the tunnel, but there does seem to have been a detoxification of difference for younger people in this country. In many ways, it is the toxification of difference that explains why older people in this country have done so many stupid things recently.
Do you think any of this could be due to a more pronounced break in the social contract? That young people have increasingly little faith in a system which asks they work, but gives them no security of retirement, or housing, or anything of the other things you mentioned, in return? And that they aren’t buying traditional political scapegoats or excuses?
I mean, you’re absolutely right, but it is about capital, the basis of capitalism.
You know, even, in 79 when Thatcher got in, about 40% property in this country was council housing? Now it’s about 8%. So even if you weren’t getting the cheques, and the bricks and mortar, you had a social capital, which meant that you’d have a roof over your head. You’d have education and health and transport and energy and lots of things that were done by the government prior to 1979 actually made capitalism work, because you had a social capital, even if you didn’t have a material capital in society. You could go to work, pay your taxes, not own your own home, but rest secure in the knowledge that you would be looked after by the structures and institutions of society.
Weirdly, given that Thatcher is feted as a great champion of capitalism, by taking away social capital, you’ve reduced the faith of future generations in the system itself, which I think is where Jeremy Corbyn comes in for a lot of young people. In my view - very wrongly and sadly - but he does at least represent a rejection of a system that they feel offers them nothing. Unfortunately, I think he will offer them even less, but only time will tell.
How to Be Right… in a World Gone Wrong, published by WH Allen, £12.99, is out now